Happy 10th Amazon: The First Used Book Sold Story

I worked at Amazon.com from late 96 to early 97 (about 7 months total). I was recruited by Jeff Bezos, who I had known for a while through mutual business acquaintances. (One of his rainmakers was a client of mine.) He suggested I think about joining the company. I wanted a change from my Web development company. I sold the company, and joined as catalog manager, learned a lot about how book information works (and doesn't), suffered through the growing pains as employee 104 or so, and then left when I thought the company was going off its rails. I thought there was a good chance Amazon.com would have been out of business by fall 1997 based on trends I saw.

It didn't, and I'm still not unhappy that I left: I couldn't take the pace and I had just met the woman I am now married to. (My baby boy should be happy I left Amazon, too, or he wouldn't exist!)

The Seattle Times and New York Times both recount Amazon.com's history on its 10th anniversary, and bring up themes that I know from working there and hearing reports from people inside ever since. Jeff Bezos is an incredible manager and terrible delegator. He is so good to work for and so frustrating, too--because he's often totally right when he gets involved in micromanaging decisions. (If he was often wrong, it would be unbearable.) I remember spending days tweaking the language used on book pages to describe availability until he agreed with what we'd come up with. That's why used books were often called "hard to find" books to buy us more time.

The last big project I did at Amazon I screwed up. I was in charge of the OOP project, the out-of-print book project. We had 1.1 million titles in our database (really more like 1.5, but we underestimated to have room to grow. I bought a chunk of data to supplement our catalog information, and by combining in print and out of print, we could top 2.5 million.

But we had no used-book fulfillment arm or methodology. We took a gamble. We'd integrate the data and say it might take 4 to 6 months to acquire books. That gave us several months to work out what people wanted and build an organization. Unfortunately, everyone from employees 1 and 3 down to individual managers was opposed or recalcitrant with much bigger problems of growth to worry about. I couldn't make it happen. Things slipped. The project was handed off to a friend of employee 3 who was a terrific guy and he ran with it and made it happen somehow.

My future at the company was pretty dim. I wasn't going to be fired, but I was never going to rise above my level. I was a "senior" manager reporting to a VP and who worked regularly with all the VPs and chiefs of the company. But there was a balloon growing in "senior" management in which there would be folks at the top of that balloon doing crazy, interesting, new things, and at the bottom, like myself, who would be doing boring and frustrating but necessary work. Seeing my dull future, I bailed, and focused on my new love and getting more sleep. (Seven months later, I was diagnosed with cancer, which I beat.)

Which brings me to the point of this story: I placed the order for and received the first-ever used book from Amazon.com. The attempt was to make sure the system could record the order, its fulfillment, and delivery. The book was one Tara, my housemate at the time, loved: Fisher's Hornpipe. It was published in 1983, and was already long out of print in 1997 and rather difficult to track down.

We placed the order, and the elves running the OOP (more normally called OP in the book business, but Amazon didn't have anybody much from the book business in those days) found it and delivered. I read it: A fantastic and underrated book with an ending that leaves a lot to be desired (Baltimore City Paper agreed about it being underrated back in 1999).

A few weeks after that, I quit Amazon.com. A few days after I quit, Tara was killed in a motorocycle accident caused by a new boyfriend driving under the influence; he was convicted and jailed for a while for her death much later.

A few months after Tara died, I found I had cancer. A year later, I was healthy again. A few years after that, I married my sweetheart. And now it's eight years later, and I have a baby and Amazon is 10.